City planners in Forest Lake Minnesota last week gave initial approval to the expansion of the city’s Wal-Mart discount store into a superstore. The retailer wants to add a 50,000 s.f. addition to 129,760 s.f. store. But this week, a petition circulated by area residents has forced a delay in the project, according to the Forest Lake Times. A group called the Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) in Forest Lake, petitioned the City Council to put the project on hold so that environmental studies could be done. “[We are] asking that they table the matter to allow for the environmental facts, that pertain to the Wal-Mart land use permits,” a spokesman for the group said. “We’re not voting in favor for or against the project.” To expand their store, Wal-Mart had to cobble together 5 difference parcels totaling 20 acres. Wal-Mart was hoping that the council would approve its preliminary plat and site plan this week, but instead their plan was tabled. The CRG is asking for an environmental review and a traffic impact study. The citizens’ group hired their own traffic engineer from Minneapolis, who said Wal-Mart’s expansion Smith would bring an additional 2,000 cars a day, which would “just make the [traffic] situation worse.” Wal-Mart’s lawyer warned city officials that it has 60 days to rule on the application, and if they take no action in that time, the project is automatically approved.
But one City Council member said, “it would not be responsible to move forward without at least some preliminary information about the area.” The council voted 4-0 to table the topic, but Mayor Stev Stegner had to abstain from the vote, because his parents own one of the 5 parcels Wal-Mart wants to buy. If the state decides an environmental worksheet is required, several studies will be done on the Wal-Mart property. But the state could say the environmental review is discretionary, in which case the city could proceed without the studies. The Council must render its decision by May 7th. Even if the studies began today, there is not much time left to conduct, or review, such reviews.
It’s hard to imagine city officials wanting to approve a major expansion without having an independent environmental review, and traffic analysis. But then again, if the Mayor’s family stands to make out financially from this deal, are his colleagues on the City Council going to hurt him financially? Without the Citizens for Responsible Growth, the City Council would already have taken their vote. It’s pretty pathetic when citizens have to step in to remind their elected officials to do their due diligence. Maybe the traffic and environmental studies in Forest Lake will get done — but it’s not a good sign that it was local residents who had to force the issue to the fore. The Forest Lake Times has already run an article with the headline, “Wal-Mart Supercenter Coming in 2008.” Hardly what you’d call an unbiased account.